We know about Pentecost, but to an outsider it is really weird: tongues of fire, sound of a blowing violent wind, Galileans speaking in languages that were not their native tongue speaking in other tongues so that foreigners understood. This morning I would like to make sense of it by looking at a Genesis and a Revelation passage.
Read Acts 2:1-13 and Genesis 11:1-9 and Revelation 5:6ff
1. God sends people out
Now immediately we have a problem here because if you read Gen 10:5, 20, 31 you see that the people already had their own languages. So, what was Moses thinking when he wrote 11:1? Has he lost the plot and forgotten what he wrote a couple of verses before? Even 10:32b seems to contradict the people all gathering to build one city with a massive tower!
The answer is that chronologically it goes 9, 11, 10. Moses puts in the Table of Nations and then explains how it happened. And he does it to emphasis the disobedience of Noah and his family to God’s command, and how God had to intervene.
So what command did they disobey? Genesis 9 is the close of the account of the flood. The whole earth went from hundreds of thousands of people to eight. God judges the wickedness of mankind in the flood because “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (6:5). After the flood he tells them in 9:1 “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”. Chapter 10 makes it look like that is happening (READ 10:32 again). But God first had to come down and shatter their disobedience of clustering in a city and starting a tower-building-anti-God campaign. He made their clustering impossible by confusing their languages.
Did you see that in verse 4, “and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth”? Their purpose is to defy God’s commands (9:1) and do what seemed right in their own eyes. What does this defiance look like? There are two things they do that represent two problems of the heart:
- Build a city
- Build a tower
- Make a name for ourselves
- That we will not be scattered
The first and the last are linked and the middle two are linked – an outward expression of inward sin. Building a city was a way to avoid being scattered over the whole earth; building a tower was a way to make a name for themselves. At the heart there are two underlying sinful attitudes:
- The love of security
Farm outside a come in at night. City walls, gates, guards. We struggle with making ourselves feel secure – extra lock, dog, alarm, etc. We should not find our security in what we can build, lock, etc but in God.
- The love of praise of man
The people of Babel wanted others admire their labour and accomplishment! They wanted to build something that said: we are great and you should want to be like us (if I was you I would want to be me too)! Everyone has regard for what others think. No one enjoys criticism – especially when it is unwarranted!
We want people to think well of us and we try and avoid people thinking badly of us. This manifests in different ways in different people’s lives: the fear of man, peer pressure, a desire to be wanted and accepted and not be ridiculed and rejected. We should not find our joy in the praise of man but in our acceptance from God.
In our NIV translation the word “men” is actually “sons of Adam”. The point Moses is making is that things are really no different after the flood than before the flood – they are doing the same things. It is the repeated story of the OT – mercy and judgement, mercy and judgement. But very little heart change – humans need more than the threat of judgement or the showing of mercy (e.g. flood and rainbow). We are ALL sons and daughters of Adam – we are all tempted to love security and the praise of mankind more than we love, value and trust God. What the sons and daughters of Adam really need is a new and transformed heart.
It is almost comical that God “comes down” to see their tower and city: “Gee that thing is so small for up here in heaven (as if it was going to reach us)”. It shows the complete overestimation mankind makes of his works and efforts to reach God. As great as other people may think they are and as secure as they make him feel, will ever get him to heaven.
This does not mean that cities are evil. It is rather the cooperation, collusion and corruption that develops when man’s pride is the chief end, exalting themselves. Where do you go if you want to “make a name for yourself”? Do you go to Daggakraal or to eGoli? And God says, “Together, if they set their heart on exalting themselves and making their name great, they will do it”.
To prevent the blossoming of man’s prideful exploits he scatters them (8, 9) over the face of the whole earth. They will not be one people with one language. God separates them into languages and peoples so that they can’t unite in their arrogant, presumptuous, man-glorifying, God belittling global plans. His purpose is that man would spread across the face of the whole earth (9:1) making God’s name great – and not be investing their efforts in making a name for themselves.
2. The gospel sends people out
Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Matthew 28:19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
In the story of Pentecost tongues is a partial reversal of the confusion that God intentionally caused at Babel, for the sake of fulfilling the same purpose. God wants the gospel to go out to all nations, to fill the earth that HIS name may be made great wherever the gospel goes. All those who heard the message that day would be unnamed missionaries who would go back to their nations with the gospel hope. God would even use persecution to accomplish this:
Acts 8:4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Acts 11:19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.
Th gospel was stuck in Jerusalem and God propelled it out: The book of Acts bears testimony that it doesn’t just stay with the Jews in Jerusalem, it goes to gentiles all over the Roman Empire: the gospel is scattered to many nations.
The baptism or fullness of the Holy Spirit in those believers at Pentecost was an overwhelming experience of the greatness of God which spilled over into courageous, passionate, praise-filled witness. The gift of tongues brought down the human barrier to communication – different languages – so that the gospel could explode from Jerusalem.
- Making God’s name great in our church
Has it ever happened that a church wants to make a name for itself so that it is thought well of by other churches, Christians and the surrounding community? Is it a temptation to desire the praise of people? Does a minister not feel this temptation too? Are we tempted to place our security in in building? God has already confused with the purpose of scattering a people (Genesis 11) as opposed to building a city/tower to glorify themselves. His unrelenting purpose is making His name great. God has a governing purpose – filling the whole earth with his great name.
The Pentecost believers were baptised so that… It is not an experience to be sought for the sake of an exhilarating encounter.
- Acts 4:8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people!
- Acts 4:31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.
- Acts 9:17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord–Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here–has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
John Piper reasons like this: (a) The Acts believers were baptised and filled with the Holy Spirit to empower them with boldness, conviction and strength for testify about the gospel of grace; (b) there are still many who need to hear the gospel of God’s grace; (3) we should full expect and desire the filling with the Holy Spirit so that Christians are supernaturally empowered for completion of this ‘to the ends of the earth’ task.
Making a name for God in your life
In the Revelation passage, at the centre is a throne and on the throne was a Lamb looking as if it had been slain. And then the concentric circles of worship start to expand: (1) the four living creatures, (2) the twenty-four elders (who were singing a new song), (3) then one hundred million angels all sings in a loud voice; (4) then every creature on and under the earth and in the sea singing – that includes the great multitude of Rev 7:9 (READ). You know what this scene does?
- It reminds us that there is a throne and WE are NOT on it. There is one who is worthy to be on the throne because he left heaven and came down to mankind on a rescue mission because any tower we build here on earth will never reach heaven. Whenever we ‘gather’ stuff on earth we are building our own throne. Jesus left his throne to serve us in death, he gave up his security, and in death he was mocked and scorned and shamed. And through his death he bountifully gives us security (not based on earthly things) and acceptance (not based on human opinion) that we can find nowhere else.
- It reminds us that there is only one occasion in all history when it is going to be right and proper for men and women to gather in all their vast numbers with every language – in worship of this Lamb.
Read Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1.13, Revelation 5:6-14, 7:9-12
- How are you tempted in the two areas that the people of Babel were tempted (security and making a name for yourself)?
- How is ECCC tempted in the two areas that the people of Babel were tempted (security and making a name for ourselves)?
- God used confusion of languages and persecution to make sure that the message is scattered to all nations: How else do you think he is doing this today?
- What does it mean for you to carry the greatness and glory of God in the gospel out?
- How does Jesus bring us the acceptance and security that so many people seek in a Babel kind of way?
- How are we (even as Christians) still tempted to revert to these kinds of functional gods?